Mass Hysteria

I have based my life’s work on the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, that words matter because they can heal or hurt in so many ways. The misuse of words can cause us to do abominable, hurtful things to our fellow humans and can cause the phenomenon known as mass hysteria.

I think we are witnessing it now.

Mass hysteria is defined as a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, or irrational behavior or beliefs. It can also be an inexplicable illness, but that really isn’t pertinent to this discussion. It is often driven by fear.

Some people are consumed with the idea that the entire worldwide scientific community has conspired to submit the rest of us to the “hoax” of the coronavirus. Others are certain that we have Hollywood celebrities that drink children’s blood and adrenochrome and are secretly trafficking children and protecting pedophiles. Does any of this make any logical sense? Where are the facts to back up these ideas? The sheer repetition of such ideas can make them seem true, even when they are patently false.

What fuels mass hysteria is the power of suggestion. According to verywellmind.com, mass hysteria is related to groupthink. Dr. Irving L. Janis defined groupthink as “a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups.” If an idea is put forth strongly enough and frequently enough, people begin to believe it is true whether or not the evidence of truth is there. An example from early American history is the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Many of the women and men hanged for witchcraft were accused by a group of young girls, but no one saw anything solid or had any real evidence. Even the courts of the day began to take the word of the young girls over other, more steady voices in the community. And it turned out there were some underlying reasons that people were willing to let their fellow community members be labeled as witches: greed, jealously, covetousness. It was a bleak time in history.

I used to teach Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible”, and explained that he wrote it at a time in America when dissent was unsafe and speech was being curtailed by many different entities. In the early 1950s, to disagree with the administration in charge would result in being labeled a Socialist, Communist, or at the very least, a “sympathizer”. People lost their jobs because they received such labels, and many people were afraid to speak out. While reading “The Crucible”,students would say it seemed impossible to believe the court would let these lying girls send innocent people to their deaths. As Miller said, “the thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. So the evidence has to be internally denied.”

Does that have a familiar ring to it?

“The Crucible” was about the Salem witchcraft trials, and a lot of parallels could be drawn between the mass hysteria of that time and the 1950s. Until it was finally disbanded, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, led by Senator Joe McCarthy, led a reign of terror that basically called anyone they didn’t like a Communist. I can see some disturbing similarities to that era and our present one. There is a ton of groupthink going on, and some of that has gotten so extreme that it could probably be termed as mass hysteria. A recent example is the moment in one of the Trump rallies where the crowd chants, “lock her up!” The subject of the chant? The governor of Michigan. In 2016, when the Christian author Max Lucado had the nerve to ask in one of his columns if people thought Trump was a decent man, he received death threats from other Christians. This is groupthink at its worst. I don’t have to point out that these are not people trying to be thoughtful citizens and voters. These are people caught up in the moment, chanting and saying things we can only hope most of them don’t really mean. And groupthink can occur on either side of the political arena, but the constant rallies by the Trump organization contribute to the groupthink phenomenon in a much more impactful and disturbing way.

The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health said groupthink increases as group cohesiveness increases, which may help explain the phenomenon of mass hysteria. The group members feed off each other’s emotional reactions, causing the panic to escalate. Suddenly anyone who isn’t part of a certain group is a socialist, Marxist, or at the very least, a liberal. Most of this is pure foolishness. Is Colin Powell a socialist? He endorsed Joe Biden. What about Cindy McCain? The last time I checked, she was a very staunch Republican. In reality, I think most of the people who are voting for Biden want change. Saying that they are Socialist is like saying every Trump supporter wants a dictator.

I have heard the argument from some evangelicals that this election is a fight for good vs. evil. Again, that isn’t appealing to people’s rational thought processes, but is instead works to stoke fear and sets up a terrible dichotomy. There are plenty of Trump supporters who are troubled by the nasty, mean spirited things he says and tweets. There are plenty of Biden supporters who either think his policy ideas are too liberal (or not liberal enough). But good vs. evil? Please. This isn’t Satan vs. Jesus. This is a democratic election, and to act like either side can only be one or the other shows me that you are not being a thoughtful person. Our country needs independent thinkers who will analyze and make decisions, not based on the meme of the day or some other catch phrase of groupthink, but on what is really good for this country. We are not always going to agree on what that is, either. We never have.

I have friends who are Biden supporters but don’t want people to know because they fear people will start thinking they are somehow “un-American”. I also know some silent Trump supporters who disagree with Biden’s policies but are ashamed of Trump’s public antics and don’t want to be associated with that image. This makes me believe that groupthink is doing it’s job– making people believe that there is only one way to think, which is about as un-American as you can get.

I look forward to a time when we can have differences in opinions without resorting to name calling; to people actually listening to what a person with a different viewpoint says; and to a day when, even if we can’t agree with them, we call each other brother and sister and still show respect for one another at the end of the day.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

In the late 1960s, there was a cigarette commercial that touted the first “women’s cigarette”. They were Virginia Slims, and the marketing ploy for this brand was that by smoking them, a woman would be asserting herself and showing that she had acquired the new-found freedom of the Women’s Movement. Although I wasn’t a smoker, I could see the brilliance of this campaign: just by changing your cigarette brand, you were somehow freer, more hip, and on the cutting edge. Even though I was a nerdy junior high student at the time, I could sing every word of the jingle (cigarettes were still advertised on television). There were a lot of interesting paradoxes about the ad campaign, one of which was the group that developed it was entirely comprised of men. The plan was to promote gender equality and women’s march towards this goal. The main problem here is that, in reality, gender equality was still far, far away.

Like most marketing campaigns, the pesky details that smoking might cause cancer, emphysema and a host of other maladies were left out. Also, having grown up in that era, here are several things that were still in place even though women had supposedly achieved equality:

  1. In 1982, at the age of 26, I applied for my first credit card. I had taught for four years. Visa would only accept my application if I had a man co-sign the application. My father signed because he felt it was important that I establish credit. A college graduate with a professional job and no real debt issues could not get a credit card if you were female, at least not by yourself.
  2. In my first teaching job, I coached both boys and girls high school track and field. At each track meet there was generally a coaches’ meeting before the start to go over rules and regulations. I was often the only woman in the room. Trust me, I was invisible. No one ever even looked at me, spoke to me, or acknowledged my presence. Only if I asked someone a direct question would I ever get any type of attention. After I had coached a few years and some of the coaches were used to seeing me around, they finally began to be a little more friendly and spoke to me like they realized I was actually supposed to be there. It didn’t hurt that I had some really good athletes, which I am pretty sure they noticed first.
  3. Buying a car in the 1980s– you guessed it- I had to have a male co-sign the loan with me. We women obviously weren’t supposed to buy things on our own. Again, my father was willing to sign because he knew I would make my payments on time. There are, of course, many more examples, but these are just a few things that I can dredge up that wouldn’t be a problem today.

All of this has been on my mind a lot recently because of two recent events: the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Supreme Court nomination hearing for Amy Coney Barrett. RBG was a legend for her relentless pursuit of gender equality, and I won’t detail it here because you can find her history in any number of articles and books about her. She truly changed peoples’ lives, and not just those of women. Because of her, my twenty-something daughter was able to get a credit card while still in college without any help from me or her father. She wouldn’t think twice about trying to buy a car or that she might need to find someone to co-sign with her. We truly have come a long way as far as all of that goes. A doctor herself, she finds it bizarre when I tell her that when I was growing up and talked about being a doctor, most people would say something like, “honey, don’t you mean a nurse?”

There has been a lot of discussion about Amy Coney Barrett and her confirmation. Since it is pretty much a given that she will be confirmed, I want to mention something that I noticed about the hearing that was subtle but still unnerving to me. Barrett appears to be well qualified for the position, and except for limited experience in the judiciary (three years), has excellent credentials. Throughout the hearing she remained composed and articulate in what is a grueling process. One of the differences in her hearing and the men who were confirmed before her has been the way the senators have gushed on about her family. Several of the senators have droned on and on about how amazed they were by her and that she has a large family. I think it is wonderful that she has a beautiful family, but isn’t this essentially a job interview for the highest court in the land? In a regular interview, a person cannot even be asked about her children. Statisticians who keep up with this type of thing noticed the disparity of time talking about her children and family as compared with the last several hearings of male candidates. I’m not saying her family shouldn’t be mentioned at all, but the excessive talk about it should not have been a main focus.

As many of you know, there was the moment that went viral during the hearing when Barrett was asked to hold up her notepad to prove she had no notes in front of her. This delighted her supporters, who saw it as confirmation of how intelligent and prepared she was for the hearing. Is there really anyone who did not think that someone who taught at the Notre Dame School of Law for fifteen years would not be prepared? The whole exercise here seemed theatrical and a bit condescending to me. First of all, anyone who was looking at her could see that the notepad in front of her was blank. What bothered me about this was that it was so much like when I was growing up and a man might say something like, “Oh look! She is pretty and SMART, too!”, or some other slightly condescending statement. Would Senator Cornyn have asked a male nominee the same question? If one wanted to be snarky, one could say that she had no notes because the Republican senators had already indicated they were going to make sure she was in, so why prepare? If you know your confirmation is a sure thing, why not just wing it?

We as a nation are undoubtedly much closer to gender equality than we were when I was a young woman; we have indeed come a long way. The inequalities people face now are much more of an undercurrent, not as obvious as they were 50 years ago. One thing is for certain: we do not want to go backwards. We do not want to return to a time when women (or anyone else) were treated as second class citizens. The people who question the motives behind the Barrett hearing are right to ask all of the hard questions, even though the hearing was, in some respects, just a formality. Time will tell us what kind of justice Barrett will be. Some of what we have witnessed the past several days tells us that we still have work to do.

Sharpening Your Crap Detector

“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” Arthur Schopenhauer

“The greatest friend of con artists is lack of knowledge.” Jane King

When I was a senior in high school, I took physics because science was one of my favorite subjects. I don’t remember a lot of what we learned that year, but I vividly recall watching an old reel-to-reel film about relativity. At the beginning of the film, a distinguished looking gentleman in a suit, whom we could only see from the chest up, began discussing Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity. After a few moments, a variety of items started shooting from the bottom of the screen to the top past the speaker’s head. After a few more moments, the speaker revealed that he was really hanging upside down and the items we just saw flying up were actually the contents of his pockets that were falling out due to gravity. He let us know that the film editors had flipped the video so that he appeared right side up. We were learning a lesson in relativity and perspective. It is a lesson I have never forgotten.

In this age of instant information (and equally instant disinformation), wading through all of this mess is like trudging through a mud hole. We mostly take things at face value, much like I did watching the physics film. It is often not until things go awry that we realize we have been duped. Our background, culture, and life experiences influence us in ways that we never realize. For example, when talking to a friend about COVID-19, he indicated that he didn’t believe it was real because he didn’t personally know anyone who had contracted it. “If this disease is so terrible, shouldn’t I know someone who has either died from it or has been terribly ill with it?” he said. We live in a sparsely populated area, so the COVID problem is not as pervasive as it is in urban areas. Part of the problem with his reasoning is that it relies on a pretty narrow information source from which to draw a broad conclusion. It is similar to saying that since I don’t know anyone who has died from the measles, it must not be deadly. Or, when I visited Washington D.C. years ago, a man I met, fascinated by the fact that I was from the backward (his word) state of Oklahoma, asked if we had cable television yet. I told him most of our tepees were equipped.

We just don’t know what we don’t know, and sometimes, even when confronted with new information that we have a strong suspicion is factual, our brains do not want to accept it because it doesn’t fit our perception of reality. In my first years of teaching, I taught at a small country high school that managed to qualify for the state basketball tournament. Like many small schools, this was a huge deal and school was dismissed so people could attend the game at the State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City. I rode to the game with a busload of high school students who had no other way to get there. One of the girls was talking to me and asked me where the arena was located. I told her it was in Oklahoma City, not far off of I-35. She looked at me puzzled. “What’s I-35?” she asked. “Do you mean I-40?” It took a little more conversation before I realized she had only heard of one interstate highway– I-40. She had never been to Oklahoma City before, although she only lived about an hour away. It had never occurred to her there might be more than one interstate with different numbers for identification. Her life experience didn’t encompass that fact, so it wasn’t real to her.

In these tumultuous, unsettling times, having- and using- discernment is critical. One of my professors at the University of Oklahoma, years ago, called this using your “crap detector”. I think we can all agree that there is a lot of disinformation, slanted news, and outright lies being thrown out to us by so many sources. It is coming from the Russians, the Chinese, QAnon, some organizations that call themselves media outlets–and the dutiful citizens who share and disperse this nonsense without verifying it first .When I took my first newswriting class in college, a student would receive a zero on any story that had an error in fact. Even a misspelled name could cause you to lose all credit for the assignment, because truth was the most compelling factor in the assignment.

Before we blame the media for some of the biased stories we are fed, remember: they are just catering to us, their audience. Our appetite for shock and awe stories has perpetuated this problem. Most of the journalists out there are doing a respectable job, and are trying to report with a balanced perspective. There are still some outlets that are trying to get it right. We really want and need journalists to keep digging for the facts, asking questions and reporting what they find out. Some people think President Trump is treated terribly by the White House press corps. In truth, no president has ever liked the press corps (Obama disliked them immensely) because they ask a lot of hard questions that require the president and his press secretary to stay on their toes. That is their job– to ask the hard questions.

So, use your crap detector. Understand that there are so many things you don’t know, but not because you are dumb; in this crazy information age, no one can know it all. Look things up so you can make informed decisions. Ask questions. Who knows? There might be a highway you never heard of, or the person who looks like they are standing straight up might just be hanging upside down. Perspective, experience, knowledge– these are qualities that make the difference between an informed citizen and a foolish, ignorant one. Our democracy needs an informed electorate, but you will have to sharpen up that crap detector if you want to get to some semblance of the truth.

Equal Justice Under the Law?

Stunned, shocked, angered: these were just a few of the emotions I felt when I heard the grand jury’s decision in the Breonna Taylor case. As I followed this story over the past several months, I can’t help but view it through the lens of motherhood. As a mom myself, it was terrifying to hear about a young woman being shot and killed in her own home in the wee hours of the morning. As a mom, I imagine the scene: my daughter is sleeping. She hears a ruckus at the front door, and it sounds like someone is trying to break in. She and her boyfriend hurriedly pull on clothes and her boyfriend grabs his pistol to defend them. In fear, the boyfriend shoots at whoever is breaking down the door. Fire is returned, and my daughter then lays lifeless in the hallway. Then, I imagine the repercussions. She will never have the chance to be a mom herself. All of her hopes, dreams, and loves her life might have held are now snuffed out forever. No one ever knows what they would do in such a situation, but I do know I would have a lot of questions, and there is no way I could rest until they were answered.

Here are some of the questions, that. as far as I can tell, have not been answered:

Why was there a no knock warrant in the first place? No one’s lives were in danger at that moment. The police claimed the reason for the warrant was to look for evidence that her apartment was used in drug related activity. Could the search not have taken place in broad daylight?

There are conflicting accounts about whether or not the police announced themselves. Apparently there was one witness that said they heard the announcement, but multiple witnesses who claimed they did not hear it. Who do we believe?

Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, an accused drug dealer, was already in custody at that time, so the main suspect of the crime was no longer a danger to the public. Why the need for a forceful entry into an ex-girlfriend’s home?

When the police report was filed, Taylor’s name and shooting were not even mentioned: only the boyfriend was mentioned and the fact that he fired first, endangering the lives of the officers. Doesn’t this seem like this is a huge omission of an important and disturbing fact of what happened that night?

Taylor’s family was awarded 12 million dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit settlement by the City of Louisville, along with an agreement to enact sweeping police reform. The city claimed this is not an “admission of guilt”, but what exactly is it then?

Please understand that I write this as a private citizen. First, I am not an attorney or in any way an expert in knowledge of the law. But must you be a lawyer to understand these glaring discrepancies? Shouldn’t the average American citizen be able to have at least a rudimentary understanding of laws?

Secondly, the policemen who were sent to Taylor’s apartment were put in an untenable, dangerous position. I truly feel for them and their families, because they were following orders. Policemen are put in dangerous positions to uphold the law all of the time, and I am very grateful for their service. But the way the report was written, omitting the details of Taylor’s killing, and the fact that bodycams were turned off, raises some troubling questions. I have yet to hear or read about any explanation for these details. All of these facts bound together add up to what appears to be a systemic problem.

Perhaps the person charged for the crime of Taylor’s death should be the person who signed off on the no knock warrant. Perhaps all three of the officers should have been charged with, at the very least, negligent homicide. If Breonna Taylor were my daughter, I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I had the answers to these question and a clear explanation of why the grand jury thought no crime was committed .

The governor of Kentucky has called for the grand jury investigation to be made public, so that these and other questions can be answered. And although I understand that is not the usual protocol, I would also argue that this is not a usual case. If an innocent person’s life is taken in the commission of a warrant, the very least that should happen is that the officers and department should be able to explain why they did what they did.

Some of you are upset that there are more protests and riots. I abhor violence, but this verdict doesn’t seem like justice at all. Until the above questions are answered, this is one more example of systemic racism. And if there hadn’t been any protests early on about her death, many of us would not even know that Taylor had been killed and then left off of the police report.

Until systems that encourage racist behavior change, this ugly virus of racism will continue to spread through our institutions, our homes, and our hearts. I cannot stand silent while people of color are killed without consequence. Perhaps we cannot change peoples’ hearts, but we can change laws and systems that encourage the targeting of people of color.

No justice, no peace. If Breonna Taylor were my daughter, I would fight for her until justice was served. I would want my daughter to get equal justice under the law. Wouldn’t you?

The F Word

One of the hardest things for us as human beings is the F word. No, dear one, not the word that immediately springs to mind when you hear that term. I am talking about forgiveness.

I have struggled with the F word my whole life, and I suspect you have too. The writer Anne LaMott calls earth “forgiveness school.” That term sticks with me because it so sharply reminds us that we all, in every day of our lives, have the opportunity to give and to receive forgiveness.

Why is forgiving people so hard when it is so necessary to our emotional health and well being? And why is it even harder to forgive those who have hurt the people we love?

When I was a high school counselor, a student named Sarah came to me and confided that she was pregnant. She was living with her grandparents, who had taken her in because neither of her parents were able to support her at that point. She hadn’t told her grandparents of the pregnancy yet, hadn’t sought medical attention, and was trying to figure out what to do next. My advice to her was to tell her grandparents, because they were going to find out anyway and the delay would cause more problems that would only make the situation worse. I told her that her grandparents loved her and that they would help her. She then asked if she could have them come to school so she could tell them with me present, for support. I grudgingly agreed since it was my advice to tell them, after all.

Her grandparents came to school the next day, thinking we were having a visit about graduation requirements. Sarah didn’t waste much time getting to the point. She announced to them that she was pregnant, in love with her boyfriend, and planned on keeping the baby. There were several horrible moments of uncomfortable silence. I watched grandpa and was seriously concerned he might be having a stroke. Breaking the silence, grandma began to sob. Grandpa found his voice, although it was shaky and uncertain. He spoke slowly, and his words were icy. “You will no longer live in our house. When you get home today, we will have your things packed. We don’t care where you go.”

Sarah’s grandparents got up and left my office without a word to me or Sarah. And Sarah, who had been mute through their response, began to sob as well. Through her tears, she said her boyfriend had already told her she could stay with him if she needed to. And me? I felt like I had betrayed them all. It was as if everything I had told her was a lie, and her situation seemed a thousand times worse. I told her how sorry I was that this had all happened, and I hoped things would improve in time. I thought I had probably earned the title of “Worst Counselor Ever” that day.

A couple of weeks passed, and I received a call from the main office to inform me I had a visitor. Sarah’s grandma had come to see me. She apologized for the scene in my office, and said that being blindsided didn’t bring out the best in she or her husband. She added that they were making reparations with Sarah, had asked her to come back to their home and were trying to help her boyfriend get a better paying job since he would have a child to support. I told her how glad I was that they changed their minds about keeping Sarah out of their lives, because she really needed their support. I have never forgotten what she said next.

“If we hadn’t decided to forgive Sarah, how could I ever live with myself? We love her so dearly. She wasn’t trying to hurt us but the pain she gave us that day nearly killed my husband. I couldn’t sleep nights not knowing if she was safe. When you love someone, forgiveness is the only option if you want to have any peace.”

This family went on to work out their less- than-perfect situation, but isn’t that what all of life looks like? That is often how forgiveness works– you let go of the pain, the hurt, the sheer horribleness of whatever someone else has done in order to move forward. Whether it’s your spouse, a child, a sibling, a friend, a coworker– we must forgive their trespasses.

Some of you will argue that some offenses are unforgiveable, things like infidelity, betrayal, abuse, the deep and intentional wounding both physical and emotional. I would never argue that a person should stay in a relationship or situation that causes them harm. Sometimes holding onto anger feels so good and so right. But we all know forgiveness heals us far more than it helps the person we are forgiving. Humans were not designed to carry the burden of bitterness for our entire lives. And forgiveness doesn’t always happen quickly; sometimes, it takes years. For a long time I was unwilling to forgive my father for the way he treated my mother when she was dying of cancer. He often acted like she was a big inconvenience to him, and was very uncaring to her in almost every way possible. After her doctor told us she only had hours to live, I went home to relay the information to my father (he wasn’t at the hospital, and rarely ever was while she was there). I gave him the news, and his response was to shrug his shoulders. That’s it. No words, no sadness. I was so angry I took a swing at him, but luckily I missed. I told him he made me sick and I meant it. He shrugged his shoulders again, and walked away. I wish I could say I worked through this quickly, but I didn’t. I dwelled on it and replayed the incident like a bad scene from a B movie. Over time I began to realize that my father was just who he was. He was flawed, and my bitterness towards him would never change that. I was poisoning myself with my own bitterness and hate, but that would never change what happened. I did forgive my father, and in retrospect, I am also pretty sure I did some things growing up that I needed forgiveness for as well. I was never as close to him as I was my mother, but was able to have a relationship with him for all the years until his death. I am thankful for those years, the relationship, and the forgiveness.

The year 2020 has been a crash course in forgiveness school. Maybe all of the hard things we have been enduring can make us a little better at forgiveness, at understanding that we are all flawed human beings, and that we all have probably botched a few things during this unprecedented year. As a Christian, Jesus commanded us to forgive one another. Even if you’re not a Christian, please know that forgiveness, while one of the hardest, most unselfish things a person can give, also gives you redemption– something we all need. I wish I had a five point plan or a step by step guide to help you with the F word, but I don’t. I just know it is something we must do if we want to live in peace with each other in this oh so imperfect world.

Charlie and the First Amendment

The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

If you are a regular reader of mine, you have already figured out that I like to write about former students and the many things I learned from them. Back in the early 1980s, I taught in a small country school. It was culturally diverse and mostly poor. I had a very memorable student who dropped out when he turned 16 named Charlie. By the way he dressed, Charlie had been born in the wrong decade. He wore neatly pressed khaki pants, plaid cotton shirts, and brown leather shoes. His hair was short, brushed to the side, and had hair cream on it to keep it slicked down tight. He was mostly silent in class, very respectful, and his classwork was punctual and thorough.

There was something unusual about Charlie besides his dress and quiet manner. When we would say the Pledge of Allegiance in assemblies, I noticed that Charlie would stay seated and silent. I was so surprised because he was one of the most respectful students I had ever had. A few days after noticing this, I pulled him aside after class and asked him about it. In his usual quiet way, he said that his religious beliefs did not allow him to say the pledge or to stand for the National Anthem. He said his church believed it to be a form of idolatry.

I was totally astonished and asked him what church he attended. He said he was a Jehovah’s Witness, as were most of his family. I thanked him for the explanation and he went on his way. How had I lived in this country my whole life and had never heard this?

I occasionally heard other students talk about Charlie and these differences. I heard them mention that his family did not celebrate Christmas, either. The students discussing this were not being rude or mean, they were just stating a fact. They thought it was a little odd, but didn’t call him names, say he was unpatriotic and hated America, or anything of the sort. They accepted him for who he was and what he believed. When Charlie turned 16, he dropped out of school to take the GED. He turned his books in and told me his plan. He said he was leaving school because he wanted to help his family in their carpentry business, and thanked me for being his teacher. I had no doubt he would pass his GED with flying colors; he was an exceptionally smart young man.

His story resonates with me because even though Charlie did not do what was expected, no one vilified him for it. His classmates accepted the fact that his beliefs told him not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the National Anthem. They respected his decision and didn’t give him any grief for it, which is pretty remarkable when you consider how mean some high school students can be. It makes me wonder how we got to where we are today, when someone taking a knee is immediately regarded by many with disdain and hatred. Whether or not I agree with those who choose to kneel during the National Anthem is besides the point; my opinion of such doesn’t really matter. It is their First Amendment right. In fact, if you insist that every single person must stand because you think it is the right thing to do, that smacks of totalitarianism, not democracy.

It is saddening that we are at a place in our country where we think there is only one true point of view, one valid stance, or one “right” way to live. This goes for both those who lean right or left– we stopped listening to and trying to understand one another a long time ago. As a former counselor, I know when someone’s behavior is questionable, rather than just vilify the behavior, it is of utmost importance to ask why that behavior is happening. Once one can decipher the reason behind something, the behavior often makes more sense. This holds true whether we are talking about a fussy baby or a rebellious twenty-something.

Our founding fathers understood that this country would be diverse and should be a place where a citizen has the freedom to think and express themselves, as long as it didn’t bring physical harm to anyone. We are the most speech-protected and expression-protected country in the world. It is a freedom that our soldiers have fought and died for. If we as a country can ever hope to get past this current time of extreme polarization, we must go back to the first amendment, remember what it says, and begin listening to each other.

Even when it’s hard. Even when it is the opposite of what we believe. Our country’s health depends on it.

A Student ‘Schools’ the Teacher

In all my years of working in education, I had so many students who exhibited wisdom and lived with courage.  This is the story of an incredible girl who changed me the first year I taught.

Jamie was a 16-year-old junior when I first had her as a student.  She had porcelain skin, wide, cornflower-blue eyes, a figure that most girls could only dream of, and the longest, thickest dark blonde hair that fell to her waist.  She was terribly smart (but didn’t know it) and consistently made the highest scores in my class.  Her family was poor, and back in the late 1970s when she was in my class, was surely considered “poor white trash” by those people who wished to feel superior.  I always looked forward to reading her papers because, not only were they well-written, but gave me so much insight into the challenges facing her every day.

Jamie had an older boyfriend who had dropped out of school, so though she may have been a great student, her discernment on boyfriends was pretty much like every other girl her age—not great.  Several of the people I worked with suspected he was a drug dealer.  In the middle of her junior year, Jamie let me know she was pregnant but not to worry—she was getting married.  I felt like someone had blindsided me with a left hook.

Jamie’s parents made sure she knew she had disgraced the family by getting pregnant, so no help from them was given.   She continued her schooling throughout her pregnancy, took a few days off to have her baby, and returned to class within a week.  Fortunately, her husband’s mother offered to keep the baby while she continued with school. As the year wore on, Jamie’s looks changed.  Still beautiful, her eyes had plum colored circles under them.  She became as thin as the model Twiggy was back in the 1960s.  She rarely spoke up in class discussions, but never missed a day.  She finished out the year with excellent grades and disappeared from my life for the summer.

Shortly before school started in the fall, I got a call from Jamie.  She didn’t have a vehicle and had no way to get to school.  The bus didn’t go by her apartment, so could I possibly swing by and pick her up and take her to school?  I couldn’t say no.

I would pick her up each morning in front of her tiny apartment above an old store downtown. She would reveal bits and pieces of her home life: last night her husband didn’t come home; last week he forgot to pay the electric bill so they had no heat or hot water; the week before that he came home higher than a kite. I asked her if she needed to stay with me at my house, but she said no, he was her baby’s father and she wanted to make a go of it if she could. It was no surprise that things got worse and worse, so she started looking for a way out.

Through all of this, Jamie remained valedictorian of her class. Her schoolwork never suffered. I enlisted the help of some friends and found an attorney willing to take her divorce case pro bono so she could get out of her toxic marriage, because by now, she feared for her life along with her baby’s life. I was starting to feel like things were looking up for her finally, until one day she got into the car with a tear stained face. I asked if she were okay, and she said she was. We drove along in silence for a few minutes until she broke it with the words, “I’m pregnant.”

I nearly ran off the road, but luckily composed myself before we wrecked. She told me she worried what her husband might do when he found out she was pregnant but was leaving. Her plan was to stay until she had the baby, then to break it off. I couldn’t fathom it; it made no sense to me. I wanted her to leave right away. Jamie explained that I didn’t understand how her husband thought but that I would just have to trust her judgment. I couldn’t sleep at night for worry that she might not be waiting for me in front of the apartment the next morning.

She stayed, and had her second baby a month before graduation. She kept her valedictorian status, and her promise to leave. Shortly after graduation, she left her husband, took her two babies and moved out of town. I lost track of her but never forgot her. I would think of her at odd times and wonder where she had landed, and if she was still the same tenacious, steadfast young woman, making the best of things despite the odds.

I moved to another town, took a different teaching job, and got on with my life. One day twenty years later, I was at the counter of a store when a woman approached me: it was Jamie. She told me her children were grown, were doing well, and that she had just become a grandma. She thanked me for giving her rides to school and said she was pretty sure she would have dropped out if I hadn’t given her those rides. I told her I was pretty sure she would have found a way, because her tenacity, her desire, and her work ethic were some of the strongest I had ever seen. We visited a few more minutes, and parted ways. I have never seen her again.

Students like Jamie taught me that perseverance will get you far when money and privilege don’t exist. She taught me that the human spirit is stronger than almost any force that fights against it, and that just putting one foot in front of the other, when that is all you can do, is enough. I never caught her feeling sorry for herself. She reminded me that education is so important, that it is worth almost any sacrifice. Most of all, she taught me that perspective is everything and that there is a whole lot of stuff that I don’t know or understand about this world, but you don’t have to understand everyone to love them. Their background can be completely different from yours, and others may turn up their noses at them, but each one has such a valuable gift to give. She gave me so much, and really all I gave her were rides to school.

Things are bleak in our world right now. There is uncertainty, division, hatefulness, a pandemic, and lots of other problems in this world. When I remember students like Jamie, someone who it seemed had no one and no help, I am reminded how very strong the human spirit is and how we, in spite of everything, are able to overcome what seem like impossible hurdles. So chins up, my friends. We will get through all of this. It won’t be easy, it won’t be pretty, and we may need to cry sometimes. It will be messy, sad, and may feel endless. But let’s keep putting one foot in front of the other, pray for each other, and offer a ride to school if needed. Because in the end, all we have that really matters is each other.  

Monuments to Half Truths

Once in a great while, something happens that totally challenges the way a person views something that, until that moment, was just taken for truth. I had such a epiphany a few days ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

I saw an article, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.” The title immediately piqued my interest. The writer, Caroline Randall Williams, is a 32-year-old poet and artist in residence at Vanderbilt University. This Harvard-educated woman tells her family story with such grace, such directness, I couldn’t stop reading. You see, her ancestors were slaves, but some of her other ancestors were white slave owners and white employers of black domestic help.

Her story begins with the sentence, “I have rape-colored skin.” She then explains that in her family history, which she has done extensive research on, has revealed that she has as much white blood in her as she does black blood. Her immediate white ancestors, she writes, were all rapists. White Southern men– her ancestors–took what they wanted from women they did not love, over whom they had extraordinary power, and then failed to claim their children.

Here is where things get even more interesting: She states, “My great-grandfather Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father. Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday bridge is named. I am his great-great-granddaughter.”

At that moment, I was able to put myself inside her shoes, and think about what it must be like to look at a Confederate monument– one that was probably erected during the Jim Crow era– and know that your ancestors were victims of slavery, rape, and all sorts of terrors that this monument is celebrating. I can’t imagine the disgust she and so many others must feel. And before you start to argue about rewriting history, and how we can’t just forget it, let me ask you a question: do these monuments really represent factual American history, or do they represent a mythic time that lovers of the Old South like to pretend was true? The myth where “darkies” loved working for their masters and having their children separated from them and sold. The myth where plantations were pillars of graceful living, not huge monuments built upon the backs of slave labor. Myths, not history.

I believe it is time to reframe history, not rewrite it. It is time for Americans to look at our past, all of it, and understand the dark corners of it as well as the bright ones. It is time to stop honoring people who were leaders of oppression during the Civil War. It took reading an article written by a woman who has both slave blood and confederate blood coursing through her veins for me to to have clarity on this issue. My hope for you is that you aren’t as slow as I was to see the entire picture.

Before someone jumps in and brings up the destruction of monuments during protests, as well as unnecessary vandalism, let me ask this question: what if we looked at our country’s founding principals: i.e., all men are created equal, and that we should be working toward a more perfect union- then listened to what a large group of our citizens see as a celebration of unequal and often horrific treatment, and took action before people had to protest? I abhor violence and destruction, but if there were nothing to protest, perhaps we could have a little more peace in this country.

I love our country. There are so many wonderful things about it to celebrate. But to act like the Confederacy should be celebrated and glorified with monuments does more to take away from the greatness of America than it does to help it. Here’s hoping that we can look at our past with clarity, so we can move forward in the present towards a more perfect union, one where we don’t ignore or fantasize about the ugliness of the past.

On Learning Curves and Teachable Moments

Schools all over the country are starting up for the fall semester, some virtual, some in person, some blended. As a former educator, I can’t walk past the displays of shiny crayons, pencils, notebooks, and reams of paper without feeling a little wistful. I always loved the startup of the year, with its crazed energy of excited students, lesson plans, cleaning and decorating rooms, setting goals, activities gearing up… the list goes on and on. I spent forty years of my professional life in education, and another eighteen in school myself. Most of my life has been viewed through the lens of a student or an educator.

As a new teacher, I was pretty terrible in a lot of ways. I was naive, oblivious, idealistic, and often flew by the seat of my teaching pants because of poor planning or ignorance of what did or did not work. After teaching a few years, I looked back at some of the things I had done and marveled that students had not collectively decided to toss me out the window at some point. For that I am eternally thankful. They gave me chance after chance until I actually got my teaching legs under me.

With any new job there is generally a learning curve to figure out. When I started in the classroom, there were all of the details of classroom management, lesson plans, how to fit everything in, and a gazillion other things to worry about. And since I looked like I was fourteen (I was 21 at the time), I had to try to make myself look mature enough to be in charge. I had the kindest students who were willing to let me try all sorts of things, and cheerfully went along with some of my rather zany ideas.

In 2020, every educator in the country, both the seasoned and the novice, is working through a new and really twisted learning curve. They are rising to the occasion by planning for all the scenarios that may come up in this pandemic. They are thrilled to be able to see students in person, to feel the excitement of a new year, new goals, fresh faces. The incredible fatigue that every educator feels in the first weeks of school is compounded by the wearing of masks, reworking classrooms to spread students out, and changing nearly every variable that was in place till now. Students have their own learning curve for the same reasons.

This is a teachable moment in America. Every educator I have spoken with who is back in school is elated to actually be with students again. They have missed their students so much, and even all of the mitigation efforts they must make cannot begin to diminish the love and care they have for their students. They have all bragged that students are so glad to be back in school they have worn their masks and done what they are supposed to without complaint. Educators, parents, and students alike are hoping they can continue to go to school without having to dismiss due to COVID. But like the troopers they are, teachers and administrators everywhere are prepared to do what they have to do to keep classrooms going even if they must become virtual for awhile. All of this extra load doesn’t come without a cost. There is an emotional and physical toll on our educators that is totally wearing on them, and this is where our teachable moment comes into play.

We, the general public, the parents and business people and ordinary citizens, must treat our teachers like my students treated me my first year of teaching. The incredible task they are undertaking deserves our wholehearted support. If you can help a teacher financially, do it. Ask them what they need. Reams of copy paper? A gift card to a coffee shop or restaurant? A shoulder to cry on or a vent partner? There are so many ways we can help make our educators and our students school year better in these crazy times. There are also many things we should refrain from doing if we want this year to be a good one. For starters– don’t bash teachers on social media, at the dinner table, or to your friends. Don’t tell everyone what you could do so much better if you were in their shoes. Show kindness and be encouraging to students and educators when you can.

My hope is that this teachable moment will make us more empathetic, more supportive, and more caring towards one another. Maybe 2020 can truly make us have better vision: we will see what really matters, and how many of our citizens are working towards keeping institutions like our schools not just operating, but thriving. Like my sweet first students of so long ago, let’s help our teachers be successful and in turn, help our students succeed as well.

On Jesus, America, and Opportunity

Full disclaimer: the views I share here are mine, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with them. But with all of the mean spiritedness in our country right now, I have found myself turning to Jesus and his first century disciples even more than ever before. Not the Jesus of the big beautiful churches that dot our landscape, but the Jesus of the New Testament.

I feel such a longing to return to the simplicity of the Gospel. The world Jesus lived in had no churches. It had no choirs, no worship bands, no conferences. His message was simple. Love God. Love people. Then he showed us with his actions how to do that, and the disciples who followed him did too.

Jesus spent his time among the unsavory, the marginalized, the outcasts. He healed, he fed, he offered encouragement. When money changers were in the temple, he got angry and turned their tables over. The Pharisees and government people hated him but the common people loved him because he showed mercy and grace and offered them hope. The disciples followed his example after his death, with many of them dying violent deaths at the hands of local governments.

I am having a hard time finding Jesus’ love in American politics lately. I am no Bible scholar, but I don’t think constantly bashing, denigrating, and name calling is what Jesus had in mind when he said love thy neighbor. I have stayed away from political and religious posts on my blog because frankly, there are plenty of those already floating around and I don’t have much new to add. I have stopped reading a lot of them because the tone of such posts flies in the face of what I am trying to do in my own life. I fail at this daily, but that’s a post for another day.

With the announcement of Kamala Harris as the Democratic presidential vice president pick, I thought back to my childhood and how, when I was growing up, I heard over and over, “anyone in America can become president.” As I got older and looked at the evidence of our past presidents during my lifetime, it became apparent to me that this was just not true. All of our presidents were older, mostly wealthy white men, with the exception of John F. Kennedy, who, while he wasn’t old, he was definitely white and wealthy. So, if anyone can become president, why did all of them seem to come from a similar background? When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it was the only time in my lifetime that this maxim, “anyone in America can become president” actually rang true. Now, with Kamala Harris on the Democratic ticket, the possibility that anyone who works hard and has the drive and desire, can be considered for the number two position in the land.

To give you some perspective before you jump to any conclusions on my political leanings : I am a registered Republican. I have not always voted for Republican candidates, because I vote for who I feel is best suited for the job at hand. And I don’t vote for someone just because they claim to be Christian, because there is that pesky thing in the Constitution about separation of church and state. Like many others, I am often at a loss for who to vote for because none of the candidates seem that viable. But I digress.

Kamala Harris may not express every viewpoint that I agree with. There are several things that she supports that I do not. That doesn’t particularly concern me much, because pretty much any candidate for anything probably doesn’t think just like me, and that is perfectly fine. We have a representative government, so shouldn’t our leadership be as diverse as our population? I love the fact that a child of immigrant parents has risen to a level this high. It is what the American Dream has always been about.

How does all of this fit with a desire to return to the simplicity of the gospel?

Just like a desire to return to the basics of Jesus, I wish we could remember what our country was about before we got into this business of mudslinging, terrorist posts and statements of doom and gloom. I have never believed that our country was so weak that one office holder could bring it down, but I have been wrong before. The three branches of government are there for a reason. There is a balance of power, and that is a great thing. And the very fact that a woman of Harris’ background can rise to the level she has is something to celebrate, regardless of whether you agree with her or not.

My hope is that you will watch the presidential and vice presidential debates, and listen to the candidates first hand. What do they actually say? Take care not to put too much stock in what the talking heads on television say, or the political “analysis” you may see on social media. When doing research, a primary source is always superior than a secondary source. Analysts don’t always tell the truth. Much like the Pharisees did in biblical times, the truth could be twisted to suit a purpose or an agenda. So be an informed voter, and get your information first hand.

And if we all follow Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor, and we reach out to help instead of to bash each other, maybe, just maybe, America can get through this pandemic intact.